Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

John Muir, Louis Sullivan & Architecture

Competition seeks dominance. Correlation is enforced by a power that demands coexistence. Compromise is human recognition that domination threatens correlation and survival.

This comment was prompted, oddly enough, by a Ken Burns documentary on PBS about John Muir. Muir was a naturalist and preservationist whose relationship with Theodore Roosevelt paved the way for Yellowstone, Yosemite and the national park concept of natural preservation. He believed human settlement must be separated from natural preservation because its competitive advantage and lack of symbiotic awareness prevented coexistence.

Muir’s opinion was opposed by Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forestry Service. Pinchot believed that natural resources could, and should, be managed for long term sustainable commercial use. He also believed that forestry was tree-farming, and that farming the environment would produce the “greatest good for the greatest number”.

Recovery from a harvest does not reproduce the world that is confiscated, however; and we are only beginning to realize that our dependence on this world is greater than our dependence on the farm. In fact, the Muir-Pinchot disagreement serves to illustrate that we live in two worlds. The Built Environment includes farming and is a bee hive within a Natural Domain that is its source of life.

The argument came to a head when Roosevelt was asked to balance the political interests involved. Muir could not prove that extinction was a possibility and Pinchot could prove that farming produced benefit. The result was a decision that reflected the balance of environmental power and awareness at the time. Roosevelt chose to support efforts to dam the Tuolumne River as a water reservoir for San Francisco. This flooded the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Unfortunately, the Hetch Hetchy was considered equal to the Yosemite Valley in natural significance. The wisdom of this decision will be reconsidered when the world is no longer considered a farm.

Pinchot advocated the “greatest good”, but it was a one-sided definition that ignored CORRELATION and cut through interactive environmental relationships. The result in this example was domination of the San Francisco Bay and extinction of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. This wasn’t farming. It was confiscation with consequences that will only be revealed when knowledge improves awareness and prediction.

We are still unable to define the words “sustainable” and “symbiotic”. This fills debate with sound bytes written to influence rather than persuade; but more are beginning to question “the greatest good for the greatest number”. They are beginning to realize that a “world without end” is not an infinite place for “the greatest number” and survival is at risk when the “greatest good” ignores its source of life.

The answer is somewhere between Muir and Pinchot, but I favor Muir until we reach the level of awareness Pinchot called “sustainable”. We all know we’re not there -- yet.

I believe the shelter capacity we provide within symbiotic limits will define the quality of life we achieve and the population we can sustain. This is organic awareness and it challenges our ability to adapt. I’ve written Development Capacity Evaluation software and the manual Land Development Calculations to help with the evaluation of architectural options. They are based on the belief that the survival of form and function depends on correlation with its source of life, and that the Modernist movement over-simplified Louis Sullivan’s famous quote to suit a limited aesthetic objective. Sullivan said, “…That form ever follows function. This is the law.” In other words, a flower blooms when its functions are correlated with its source of life.

We must correlate our place within the gift we have been given. If we do not adjust to the forces that surround us; our growth and competition for dwindling resources will simply produce extinction. Neither Muir nor Pinchot advocated this outcome, and both were searching for alternatives in a culture of compromise that must respect an uncompromising universe.

1 comment:

  1. I received the following comment from another web site and thought i'd post here.

    Sent: Wed, May 16, 2012 7:37:47 AM
    Subject: John Muir, Louis Sullivan & Architecture

    Excellent article today. We can never know balance or correlation due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. We are always in dynamic flux in a multi-variant Hegelian dynamic. Thank you for your long series of essays/pence’s/discourses.

    William Singer, AIA
    Partner, Gruzen Samton Architects, New York, NY

    Thank you for your support, William. All species live with uncertainty in an interactive environment; but our power to dominate in the name of competition is leading us in a direction that more are beginning to question, since the outcome appears rather certain. We must keep the mystery alive.